In male-dominated industries, are women their own biggest barrier?

Women who work in male-dominated industries often cite gender as a barrier to career progression. Perceptions abound that their success in such industries can be inhibited by selective reasoning, with women at times not considered for roles due to gender or family circumstances. Conversely, they also worry about receiving preferential treatment based on gender rather than merit, such as in circumstances where a company hopes to promote and boost its equality credentials.

Throughout my career in mining, I have seen and directly experienced these situations. I was told they were based on traditional attitudes and were widespread – to be accepted rather than challenged. However, to achieve the success I knew I was capable of, I quickly realised I would need to move beyond such barriers – both those perceived limitations driven by societal expectation and my own psychological & emotional barriers that would hold me back if I gave them credence.

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Overcoming the obstacles

It is undeniable that mining is an industry dominated by powerful men. Mining for Talent, a UK study published early in 2013 by Women in Mining and PwC, found that the industry has the lowest number of women on company boards of any industry group worldwide. Statistics like these can be daunting for those looking to enter a sector like mining, and even more so for those already locked into the industry and hoping to progress their careers.

However, there are ways to be successful despite this environment. The first step is confronting these hurdles and internal anxieties. I believe women need to avoid prejudices around whether their chosen sector is female friendly or male dominated, and instead look at the opportunities and jobs presented in the context of their ambitions and skillsets. With a background in geology, I saw mining as a chance to work in incredible locations around the world, from remote South Africa to outback Australia.

Creating a leadership mindset

This approach is even more important for those hoping to vie for senior management positions. Women often hesitate and shy away from putting themselves forward for these roles due to either a lack of confidence in their own ability or intimidation based on societal attitudes around a given industry. The only way they can succeed is to maintain a strong belief in themselves and proactively improve their skillsets as necessary, striving to continue learning both on and off the job.

Once I realised I was in a position to become a leader, I followed this advice. I saw a need to further my managerial skillset and career growth by changing pace. I knew that an executive education course would set me apart from my counterparts, both male and female, and signal to my superiors that I was serious about progressing my career and myself even further.

As such, the Chief Executive Women’s scholarship I won allowed me to complete the Advanced Management Programme (AMP) at INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau, France. Through this, I not only honed my management and leadership skills but was able to reflect on my achievements, better understand how I fit into my company and was exposed to an inspiring group of honest individuals.

The programme equipped me with a number of communication and leadership skills I could infuse into my own style, while providing insight into how I viewed both myself and the world around me. During the course, I met both men and women in similar situations to my own, and hearing how they progressed and overcame issues I face on a daily basis only inspired me further.

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My tips for women in male-dominated industries

The key for women in male-dominated industries, then, comes down to both self-belief and approaching work without predisposition toward a common but misinformed viewpoint.

Further to this, you can secure your own immediate and long-term success by:

  • Focusing on the role at hand
  • Never being afraid to put your hand up to try something new
  • Realising that you don’t need to be the expert – just a quick learner
  • Accepting advice and support when offered
  • Being open to enhancing your skills through further education

Sinead Kaufman - Leaders in Heels


Sinead Kaufman is the Programme Lead, Leading for Success for Rio Tinto. She was a winner of the 2014 Chief Executive Women Scholarship, through which she completed the Advanced Management Programme at INSEAD.